Debate analysis: rowdy SC audience shows discontent with candidates

“It is now time for our party to unite around the candidate best equipped to beat Barack Obama,” said Jon M. Huntsman Jr. as he ended his campaign for the Republican nomination yesterday.[1]  Throwing his support behind frontrunner Mitt Romney, Huntsman ended a policy-driven campaign based on pragmatism that failed to resonate with GOP voters.

During the latest in a never-ending string of GOP debates, the crowd last night in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina highlighted the fact that conservatives want an advocate, a fighter, and not a conciliator.  Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Gov. Rick Perry pandered to that crowd and rebuffed Huntsman’s call earlier that day for party unity and substance-based campaigning.

Viewers could pick apart a few policy differences, especially with Ron Paul, in a debate otherwise plagued by histrionics and back-and-forth banter on momentary controversies.  Still, more than outlining the differences in their plans to spur economic growth, the trailing candidates wanted to show that Romney does not yet have this race locked up.

The latest polls show Mitt Romney’s substantial lead.[2] Yet, Gingrich and Santorum came out fighting in last night’s debate as they both vied to be the “conservative” alternative to Romney.

Despite garnering a greater number of votes in Iowa and New Hampshire than Gingrich, Paul failed to connect with the crowd, especially on foreign policy, and was booed repeatedly.

With fourth place finishes in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Gingrich might be regaining some traction and is now statistically tied for second with Santorum, followed very closely by Paul in the latest GOP ballot tracking poll by Gallup.[3]  Gingrich scored with the rowdy South Carolina audience on his points about food stamps and unemployment.  It remains to be seen whether his fiery debate performance will help build momentum going into the next debate Thursday and primary this Saturday.

Yet, regardless of whether Gingrich or Santorum edges out the other on Saturday, can either candidate stage a comeback?  The audience at this debate showed the fractured nature of Republican politics that Huntsman decried in his speech.  Serious doubts remain about Romney’s electability for some and his conservative credentials for others.  In each debate, the other candidates expound upon the inherent hesitancy of GOP voters to embrace the frontrunner.

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